Known also as the Lion City, Singapore offers delicacies at every corner, set out to enlighten those who visit this old city-state. Its multicultural ambience can be overlooked when zigzagging through its streets, which at the same time depict the history this region has outlived.  Everything from British colonisation to Japanese occupation, Singaporeans have seen it all, and being the astonishing place it is, there are still many things to discover. Archeological activities have been going on for some years now, but considered as a niche discipline. As anything that has to do with discovery and exploration, archeology also poses a thrill and rush to the ones who discover artefacts and dig up history before their eyes. Documenting these findings are a big part of not only Singapore, but of the entire human race. Below, photographer Patrick Tan explains the process behind the documentation of a specific excavation at The Empress Site. 

The project focuses on an archeology site. Please describe the details about this area and what was the main goal of the project and how was the process of documenting it? 

The site was undergoing major work that involved transplanting 8 trees on the side of the road to the archaeology site.   The archaeology site was to become the new civic space where the public can enjoy the open spaces between the Victoria Concert Hall and the Singapore river. Work was already under way when the archaeology team went to the site, and thus it became a rescue excavation.   The team was running against time as the construction had already started and as it inches towards the site, the team had very little opportunity to perform a proper excavation. However, with tremendous efforts from the team and collaboration from the authorities, the final yield was 3.5 tons of artefacts.

As the archaeology sites were carefully dug and partitioned to reveal various layers of soil and artefacts, I had to be very careful of where I stepped. This meant that I had little space to maneuver to take my shots so I had to be creative in how I angle my shots.

The Empress Site recovered many artefacts and figurines, can you please describe the meaning of this and how it relates to Singapore’s history?

The artefacts revealed history that dated back to the 14th century and at the moment, the team is still sorting out tons of artefacts found at the site. This is the largest excavation to date in the history of Singapore. The artefacts will provide a lot of evidence to early Singapore history, from the Temasek era, to Colonial times and beyond. What will be interesting is once the artefacts are mapped to written history, it will be mean there are concrete evidence to prove the existence the historical Singapore.

You talk about storytelling, as a key element in your photography. What stories derived from taking pictures to the archeology team at the site? Did you happen to collect stories from them?

I see a lot of passion in the team and the extended team of volunteers who work tirelessly every day for 100 days at almost 14 hours a day. The archaeologist Lim Chen Sian is highly qualified and could have taken an easy way out to teach, but he chose to do fieldwork, as he strongly believed in preserving history through archaeology. The volunteers are from all walks of life but the main team of volunteers is either high school students who intend to pursue archaeological studies or graduates of archaeology returning to Singapore. It is heartening to know that the young are very keen in this work.

Archeology has many intersections with photography as pertaining to the careful detail considered with both disciplines. Why do you think archeology is still so important today and why does it interest you particularly?

Photography in archaeology is used to photo-document artefacts, landscapes and the process. With my style of photography, I focused mainly on the emotive part of the process, the people and their interaction with the archaeology site. I believe archaeology is very important to help us understand our past, as it helps in the continuation of shaping our culture, and gives us confidence for our future as a nation.

At the time you were documenting this project, Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew passed away. What was the environment like over the span of these days?

The feelings were mixed ones. There was a lot of work to be done quickly and at the same time the team felt a sense of loss. It sort of felt like a double sense of loss as on the one hand, it was a rescue excavation and on the other hand, the loss of our founding prime minister. But the sense of loss became a strength as it pushes the team to want to do more to preserve history, as it were unfolding in front of them on both accounts.

It was far reaching as the foreign construction workers on site also felt the loss. One of them told me that he was grateful to Singapore, and to Lee Kuan Yew, as it was he together with the pioneer ministers build up Singapore and thus giving him a chance to come to Singapore to work, earning money to send back home.

You shot this project with the Leica M (Typ 240), why did you choose to shoot in black and white?

For me, black and white images tell a story that is full of emotions, it focuses on the expressions of people, be it facial or actions. It is natural that without the distraction of colours, the images will evoke a closeness as it focuses mainly on the subject. With colours, the focus on the subject will be lost as the viewer will try to look at other parts of the image.

How can you compare this camera with the Leica M8, another camera you have used?

The difference is obviously the sensor size between M8 and M240 which the latter allows a more details with a larger sensor. While the operation of the camera is the same, the battery life of M240 is certainly a major improvement. On the excavation site, I had no worries about the battery life, and was able to use one single charged battery for a full 8 hours. The camera went through rain, mud, and sand during the excavation.

That gave me a lot of confidence.

As a Singapore-based photographer, how do you see street photography evolving? What’s the ‘scene’ like in Singapore?

Street photography is very much alive and popular. There are certainly challenges as most people in Singapore are reserved, and with the increase in unfavorable social media post, the public has become very wary of people who lift up their cameras. But this also challenges the photographer to be discreet as they go about doing street photography.

Lastly, do you have any other projects related to archeology, or others you may want to mention for our readers?

I am working on a series that explores the corporate world; people who goes to work at the Central Business District.   I see Singapore changing very fast as the economy faces uphill challenges, people chasing their dreams in a city like Singapore. I want to explore the expressions as people go about their routine in going to work, in between work, off work.

Thank you Patrick!

To know more about Patrick Tan’s work, please visit his official website.